Britain abuzz over a new plan to arm bobbies with Tasers
Expansion of stun-gun use faces a mixed reaction from the largely unarmed police service.
They're one of Britain's best known icons: helmeted bobbies, or policemen, who make their rounds on a bicycle or on foot, armed only with pepper spray and a nightstick.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But more bobbies may soon carry something more threatening. As police face greater dangers on the job, the government is extending the use of Taser stun guns beyond specialist units to tens of thousands of front-line officers. It's a move that faces resistance from lawmakers, advocacy groups, and even some bobbies – and could change forever the face of one of the world's only largely unarmed police forces.
The debate over the 50,000-volt stun guns – designed to shoot wired darts that temporarily disable suspects – has intensified this week amid two high-profile cases alleging excessive use of force.
"We are still predominantly unarmed," says Paul Davis, a spokesperson for the federation and a 25-year police veteran.
But, he adds, "if you look at the changing face of society, it would appear that more people are willing to challenge authority figures than they once were."
Tasers, he says, enable police to respect the "right to life" in situations where firearms might otherwise by used.
But opposition has grown amid charges that officers may not be properly trained and that the weapons can be used too frequently – and result in death.
In the US, for example, two-thirds of police departments are equipped with electroshock weapons. According to Amnesty International, the guns have played a role in more than 320 deaths in the US and Canada in the past decade. Most wrongful-death lawsuits involving them have ended up favoring police. Canadian authorities, however, are reexamining the weapons after a recent report suggests the jolt might be excessive.
Arms-free policing has been a tradition in Britain since Scotland Yard's founding in 1829. "The UK has always prided itself on its approach to 'policing by consent,' rather than 'compliance by pain,' " says Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International UK's arms program director.
When it comes to firearms, most of the rank and file resist carrying them, according to their union, the Police Federation, which found in 2006 that 82 percent of members do not want to routinely carry guns. Only a highly trained fraction of police may carry firearms.
But some 37 British police officers have been killed in the line of duty in the past two decades in England, Wales, and Scotland. The most recent death was of an officer who was fatally stabbed in June 2007, prompting one populist British tabloid, The Daily Express, to crusade for a change of policy with the front page headline: "Now Arm All Our Police."
The calls were supported by some relatives of slain police officers, but have not been taken up by Parliament.
The debate over wide use of stun guns, however, is taking place at a time of shaken public confidence in armed policing.
On Tuesday, two senior police officers faced a disciplinary hearing over the use of a stun gun in 2005 against an unresponsive man riding a bus in the English city of Leeds. The incident happened less than a week after a series of suicide bomb attacks in London. The rider, Nicholas Gaubert, was clutching a rucksack when he fell unconscious – and police, on high alert, Tasered him after he failed to respond to questions. Mr. Gaubert says the experience left him suffering severe post-traumatic stress.